Growing Hearts and Bones

Bioengineer Gordana Vunjak-Novakovic, of Columbia University, says that while her lab focuses on growing tissue, the cells are the real tissue engineers. Her job is to provide them with the right environment to let them do their job. Science Friday stopped by her lab to see the cells in action.

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IRA FLATOW, host: Here with us now, Flora Lichtman, multimedia editor. Hi, Flora.

FLORA LICHTMAN: Hi, Ira.

FLATOW: Got the Video Pick of the Week?

LICHTMAN: Yes. This week's Video Pick of the Week is about growing tissues in the laboratory. Locally grown, we saw some locally-grown hearts.

FLATOW: Not Kleenex.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LICHTMAN: The other type of tissue - organs. Actually, this lab in - at Columbia University here in New York focuses on heart muscle and bones. They can grow bones in the lab.

FLATOW: You saw them grow bones and hearts?

LICHTMAN: And they also do blood vessels, so I just want to get all their things out there.

FLATOW: It's like...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: You know, body parts.

LICHTMAN: They do body parts in the lab. It's pretty amazing. So in this incubator, you walk into the lab, and you - it sort of looks like a normal lab. There are beakers and the lab bench, and then in the corner, there are these little things that look sort of like a mini fridge. But you open it up, and there's beating heart muscle just beating along that they have cultured themselves. And they start with a few different types of cells. So sometimes, they work with human embryonic stem cells and sort of coax them into becoming heart muscle, and other times, they start with rat heart cells and then kind of disassociate them from the rat heart and then make them come back together and make this piece of beating muscle.

FLATOW: Are they trying to create the whole heart or just parts of it or...

LICHTMAN: No. They're really - this lab, and it's Gordana Vunjak-Novakovic, although I'm sure she would pronounce it differently.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LICHTMAN: Is really focused on making heart patches, and the idea is that if you have a piece heart that dies because of heart disease, you could just sort of stick it on. And the nice thing about working with human embryonic stem cells is that if you're using reprogrammed stem cells, for example, you could use it from someone's skin, reprogram it, turn it into a stem cell and then turn it into heart muscle. That's far away. We're not there yet.

FLATOW: We're not there yet. And if you go to see Flora's video up on our website at sciencefriday.com, up there in the Video Pick of the Week on the left, and you look at the video and you can actually - this is amazing. You can watch the hearts - it's not - the heart - just pieces of heart, but they're beating together.

LICHTMAN: It's contracting. I mean, this is kind of...

FLATOW: They're beating.

LICHTMAN: ...they're - the cells in unison are beating together, and they're hooked up. They're in a petri dish, but you'll notice immediately that there are alligator clips and two electrodes in the petri dish. So it's not your normal petri dish, right?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LICHTMAN: And it's attached to this little box where you can change the voltage coming in and the cycles per second, so they actually can turn the dial, and the heart rate of these cells will go up or down. It's really, you know, weird.

FLATOW: It matches the electrical current beat.

LICHTMAN: Yeah. The hertz cycle.

FLATOW: Wow.

LICHTMAN: So three beats per second is sort of the resting heart rate of a rat, and so they like to - or you can turn it down to one. It really was an obedient little creature, a little - I thought it was a little scary. When I mentioned that to the researchers, they disagreed but...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: Yeah. Your video pick has a little bit of Frankenstein in it.

LICHTMAN: Yeah. When I was thinking about this, you know, galvanism, this idea of stimulating muscles was what inspired Frankenstein, Victor Frankenstein. So, yes, I make the comparison, although they are not raising the dead.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LICHTMAN: They're not rummaging through graveyards. It's really not - it's a little bit of a stretch, I'd admit.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: There is no Gene Wilder involved.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LICHTMAN: And, yes, the lead researcher will not remind you of Gene Wilder.

FLATOW: Frankenstein.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: Well, thank you, Flora.

LICHTMAN: Thanks, Ira.

FLATOW: That's - Flora Lichtman's Video Pick of the Week up there on our website at sciencefriday.com, and it's up there, and you can see it at our website, along with all the other video picks of the weeks. And we'll wait for the next one. Thank you, Flora.

LICHTMAN: Thanks.

FLATOW: That's about all the time we have for this hour.

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